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McBride’s 150’s: Part II

Posted on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Waiting for showtime at Mansfield.

Editors Note: Part I of this article was published two issues back and covered the first half of the war, from Twiggs’ Surrender in San Antonio, Texas through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Part II is my journey through the second half of the war. For more details about each of the reenactments I included here, please check past issues of this magazine.

Sabine Pass, Texas, September 2013
After Gettysburg, in early September I went from THE BIG ONE, that was a twenty-four-hour drive from home, to a little one that was only a four-hour drive away. Sabine Pass was critical to the citizens of Texas, as the afternoon heroics of Major Dick Dowling’s single Confederate artillery battery turned back a Union invasion fleet, thereby saving East Texas from becoming another contested battleground.

As a reenactment, Sabine Pass is an odd one because the dandy little state park is in the middle of the Texas coastal oil refineries and ship building facilities. Moreover, the river on which the Union ships floated is now the Houston ship channel where dozens of gigantic oil freighters pass by every day.  Historically, the engagement was a duel between a single Confederate battery of cannons on the shore and several ships in the river. Now, the reenactment is a small land reenactment between Confederate infantry who weren’t there and Union infantry who never disembarked from their transport ships.

The most entertaining moment of the weekend, as I noted in the earlier article about the Sabine Pass reenactment, was the stroll through the Union camp by Al Gator, an indignant five-foot long alligator whose home turf we had invaded.

My pard and I attended as Union Zouaves, since the 165 NY Zouave Regiment was one of the Union infantry units that were on the transports that retired before the troops they carried could disembark.

Chickamauga, Georgia, September 2013
After tiny Sabine Pass, another big reenactment took me to Chickamauga, Georgia for an event that survived eighteen hours of steady rain that started Friday evening and continued until noon Saturday.  None of the spectator battles were rain-outs, though. Even if the weather was “steamy,” we fought under blue skies.

The event was held at Cove Farm, several miles from the National Park Battlefield. It was an absolutely beautiful site that was amply large for the thousands of reenactors and spectators.

For me, the highlight of the weekend was seeing “Kershaw’s Brigade” comprised of two battalions of campaigners. Kershaw’s Brigade were part of Longstreet’s Corps that arrived by train in the nick of time to fight, and probably turned the tide the Rebs’ way in the real battle. The reenacting Kershaw’s Brigade arrived by car, but wearing dark blue-gray jackets and rather startling royal blue trousers, both of English import historically. Those guys were an uncommon sight.

The worst part of the event had to be the hugely unbalanced forces for Sunday’s attack on Snodgrass Hill. Our battalion had galvanized for Sunday’s battle, and while waiting on the crest of the hill, I counted fourteen Reb battalions maneuvering into position to attack less than half that number of Yanks. Nonetheless, we had a lot of fun burning powder, as I emptied my cartridge box, both top and bottom.

Mansfield, Louisiana, April 2014
The state military park at Mansfield is nearly in East Texas, being just across the Sabine River that is the border between the two states, making our drive way shorter than going to Georgia. The real battle was the first of two days of fighting that blunted Union General Bank’s Red River Campaign. The Rebs, under General Taylor, managed to “cross the T,” waiting for the lead elements of the immensely long Union marching column to emerge from the pine forest into the field around which Taylor had deployed his outnumbered troops.

Our battalion attended as the 165th NY Zouaves, a regiment that was hotly engaged in the historical battle. The reenactment weekend was fairly typical, although short on sutlers. There is a good museum on site that was worth a visit, and we were fed a good meal of fried catfish on Saturday.

What struck me most about the weekend was the isolation of the battlefield. That region of Louisiana is home to some huge national forests, and not much else. An exception is a big mining operation, which may threaten the future of the Mansfield Battlefield Park, but for now is generally out of sight. It’s easy to put yourself into the shoes of the Union soldiers who had come up from the coast into a vast pine forest with few roads and few villages. It was truly a wilderness, and is still as close to it as one can find in the eastern half of the USA.

Resaca, Georgia, May 2014
How do you spell RAIN?  Man, did it did rain, but the good Lord politely allowed us a window of dryness in which to pitch our tents and unload our vehicles.

The Resaca battlefield is a state-owned property, I think. Regardless, it is a large site with rolling pastures and some forest. The ground is red Georgia dirt. We had firewood and water at our camp, but the porta-cans were in a row nearly a mile away, due to the mud.

For the size of the reenactor forces, sutler row was surprisingly large. I bought a much needed pair of jean wool Reb trousers and a nice pair of suspenders made from heavy tapestry cloth. In eighteen years of reenacting, I’ve flat worn out my original trousers, but even though they are now fragile “relics,” I still wear them sometimes as a “Ragged Reb,” since they are filthy and covered in patches. My second pair of Reb pants split down the center butt seam from crotch to the waistband.  I’ve since given them away to a new recruit, but only after I repaired them with my clumsy sewing the same Friday afternoon they split when I bent over to pick up a stick of firewood. This new third pair should see me through.

The battles at Resaca centered around long stretches of earthworks. We both attacked and defended, making each battle fun, and not too predictable. One highlight for me was when our company was ordered to go prone on top of the truly muddy dirt road and start firing in defense of our position. We did, and to this day the red clay stains remain on my new trousers and my old jacket.

On Saturday morning the combined forces did a joint flag ceremony, which was nice. The rain on Sunday morning caused the second ceremony to be cancelled. And the rain on Sunday morning also caused about half the reenactors to bug out before the battle. Sissies.  But then again, our bunch had driven 1,000 miles each way, and weren’t about to let wet feet and muddy trousers cut our weekend short. We stayed.

The caution of the weekend was looking at a dismounted cavalry trooper’s carbine right after it blew apart. Most likely the carbine was already loaded when the barrel got accidentally poked into the mud on the side of an earthen embankment, and mud stopped up the barrel. When the young reenactor pulled the trigger, the barrel split rather dramatically. No one was hurt, but it was scary, and was a memorable visual reminder to keep the barrels of our weapons clean.

New Market Heights, Virginia, September, 2014
This was another “defense of the earthworks” battle like Resaca, but New Market Heights is just outside Richmond. Historically, it was the Army of Northern Virginia protecting the Confederacy’s capital city, and not the Army of Tennessee trying to slow down General Sherman’s juggernaut as Resaca had been.

Without a doubt, what made New Market Heights (NMH) an uncommon reenactment was the participation of a battalion of about seventy US Colored Troops. Sadly, our reenacting hobby does not attract many African-American reenactors, making a USCT battalion a rare sight during any of our sham battles, so their presence at NMH was special.

My battalion, the Red River Battalion from Texas, was portraying a unit in the Texas Brigade of the ANV, so we were being Texas proud at NMH. We campaign-camped behind the earthworks both nights, “roughing it” without ice chests, tents, or camp furniture. No rain this time, most thankfully. I will say that our haversack meals were gratefully supplemented by the ample BBQ sandwich dinner served by the event hosts on Saturday evening.

On Sunday, we defended the earthworks against an assault by the USCT battalion. We followed the script, meaning the attackers charged, and climbed up and over our earthwork defenses, capturing a good handful of us, after a hot firefight. Meanwhile the rest of the defenders fled backwards into the woods to regroup and launch an unsuccessful counter-attack.

I was one of the Rebs captured on the wall and hustled into a gaggle of other angry POW’s who were forced to kneel in captivity and helplessly watch our battalion’s counter-attack fizzle out.

After the bugle ended the battle, the handshaking between Rebs and Yanks, African-Americans and Anglo-Americans, men from the south and men from the northeast, was as good as it gets in our hobby. It was abundantly clear that all the reenactors knew that the scenario we had just completed was both highly unusual, and was symbolically important, way beyond our normal white-on-white reenactment battles. I am proud to have been a part of it.

Bentonville, North Carolina, March 2015
The last four months of the war and the turning of our modern calendars to 2015 seemed to create a heightened interest among reenactors. At least that happened at Bentonville, where over 2,000 reenactors gathered to slug out General Johnston’s last futile effort to stop General Sherman.

It’s said that General Joe Johnston wrote to General RE Lee, “I cannot stop Sherman, I can only annoy him,” referring to Sherman’s army of 60,000 hard-nosed veterans being opposed by some 18,000 Rebs Johnston had pulled together.

I attended this one without any of my company or battalion pards. I joined 295 Union campaigners from all across the country to portray the 10th Iowa Regiment which fielded 350 men in the real battle. I felt privileged to serve in such a large reenacting battalion, one that almost as large as the historical 10th Iowa, and was a reenacting battalion in which each man was fully and correctly outfitted for campaign marching and camping.

There were a couple of drawbacks in being a battalion in which each of the six companies were comprised of reenactors who came together from all over the map, formed for just this one event. Men had to spend time getting to know each other, as real soldiers did, and our drill left a bit to be desired. But those were small challenges which didn’t slow down the 10th Iowa at all. In fact, the attraction for almost all the men was the eight-mile march on Saturday morning to the battlefield. I humbly requested duty as a camp-sitter during the march, age and knees being my excuse. I was grateful that I wasn’t treated as a shirker by those who started the event so energetically, since the rest of the weekend was exceptional.

Both of the Bentonville event battles were yet another assault by the massed Confederates on the earthworks dug and defended by the Yanks. For me, the Sunday battle was by far the better of the two, as the Federal position in the middle of the field was attacked on three sides by the Rebs, creating a really intense scenario for our commanders, as they turned and shifted battalions and companies to meet each new threat.

Fort Blakely, Alabama, March 2015
Naturally, the event at Fort Blakely the very next weekend after Bentonville, was an assault on more earthworks. The difference in size and scale, however, was striking.  Whereas, 1,000 Reb reenactors attacked 1,000 Yank reenactors at Bentonville, at Fort Blakely, about sixty Yanks attacked forty Rebs.

The Red River Battalion traveled from Texas to Alabama to form the core of the Union troops. The site is a state park which includes part of the original battleground and earthworks. It’s a beautiful park on the north side of Mobile, and it was early enough in the year for the heat and coastal humidity to not be oppressive, and for the ticks and chiggers to still be inactive.

Again, we campaign camped under clear skies. Like at Bentonville, period rations were issued to us for campfire cooking. This time, skirmishing before the final attack was a big part of the schedule. That included some night probes and skirmishes, which we rarely do, but were a highlight at Fort Blakely.
The big deal, though, was the final surrender of the Confederate defenders. Historically, Fort Blakely was fought on the same day that General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. The historical force numbers were as lopsided as at Appomattox and Bentonville, the Rebs fighting with a small force cobbled together, including old men and boys in the home guard.

At our reenactment, the Yanks’ successfully attacked the earthworks on Saturday afternoon, in front of a crowd of spectators. But the Confederate defenders stayed in their camp behind the works until Sunday morning.  That’s when the Union troops returned to accept the surrender of the Rebs, who marched out unarmed and glumly accepted their new status as POW’s. We then all marched through the woods to the “boats,” where the new captives were loaded and sent upriver to prison camps. In reality in 2015, that meant we escorted the Rebs to the parking lot where we all shook hands, tossed our gear into the cars, and drove home.

During the second half of my 150th anniversary reenactments I traveled to six states to take part in seven reenactments. I wore Union blue twice and Union Zouave red twice. I was in Rebel gray during two of the reenactments, and wore gray on Saturday and blue on Sunday at Chickamauga.

My home company, the Alamo Rifles, attended Sabine Pass without any of the other companies in the Red River Battalion. At Resaca and Mansfield only two companies of our battalion made the long drives, while the whole battalion attended Chickamauga, New Market Heights, and Fort Blakely. Finally, only at Bentonville did I strike out on my own to link up with others in an ad hoc “national” battalion that came together just for that one reenactment.

The point of listing those particulars is to stress that our hobby is what each participant makes of it. We have lots of choices: Huge reenactments to tiny reenactments; staying close to home or travelling far across the country to other states; driving and camping with old pards, or carpooling with guys you’ve never before met, then touching elbows all weekend with reenactors who are strangers on Friday, but have become friends by Sunday.

I have reenacting friends who only reenact as Union soldiers, and I have reenacting friends who are most reluctant to put on a blue coat. It’s a great big hobby, with room for all sorts of diversity. Everybody has choices.

I hear nay-sayers bemoan an inevitable decline in our hobby now that the 150th anniversary reenactments have run their course, or even after the big Gettysburg events in 2013. They say that the baby boomers have grown too old and will throw in the towel. To that, I say, “Baloney.” I’m one of those boomer guys, and frankly, I haven’t seen that happening.

My evidence is simple: I look around at my home outfit and see the other guys my age still going to as many events as they did ten or fifteen years ago. More tellingly, I read a couple of popular on-line reenacting forums where used reenacting uniforms and weapons are bought and sold, and I’ve not seen any uptick in ads by men who are retiring from the hobby and are trying to sell all their stuff. Nor have any of the five companies in our battalion shrunk during the past couple of years. In fact, we’re gaining members. We have lots of new, young guys in our outfit.

I’ll be too old to report on the 175th anniversary events as a fighting participant, but maybe I’ll still be around to report as a spectator watching my sons and grandkids reenact, and will write about the next new generation.

So I’ll close with my cheer and my prediction: “Long Live Civil War Reenacting!”

-Philip McBride
Author of Civil War novels Whittled Away and Tangled Honor